Sandi Kahn Shelton, Register Staff
When Earl Norwood, owner of Country Paint and Hardware of North Branford, needed to find the well at his house, he knew just what to do: go to town hall, find the plans and start digging.
There was just one problem. Town hall didn’t have the plans.
Simple, thought Norwood. He’d find the developer and ask him where he’d put the well.
But the developer had passed away, and so Norwood, like a lot of people in the small towns and suburbs around New Haven, discovered he was just going to have to get to work finding his well on his own. Not so easy, he notes, when you have an acre of land.
"I dug and dug and dug," he says. "I was out there every day, digging 2-foot holes in the ground. And, well, nothing. No well ever showed up."
Enter Pauline Muerrle of Guilford, who is a dowser. For the past decade or so, she’s had success helping people discover their wells. She walks the grounds, holding onto two thin metal rods — they look a lot like coat hangers that have been straightened out and then bent at right angles — and when she sees the sticks cross — there’s water underneath.
When she got to Norwood’s property, she walked around with the rods, and to hear him tell it, "She got to a spot, and those rods just started moving."
He wasn’t really convinced. "I thought she was full of it," he says. "It was hard to believe it would be exactly there, where she said. It didn’t really make any sense that that’s where the well would be. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, because she’s a nice lady, but I was sure it couldn’t be true. Besides, how could somebody with a stick tell me what was underground, 6 feet down?"
Nevertheless, he set to work digging in the spot where Muerrle’s rods had indicated, and, sure enough, 3 feet down, he ran into the top of his well.
Lots of people are skeptical about the ancient art of dowsing, and despite her success at it, Muerrle would count herself in the forefront of that kind of skepticism. "I don’t know why it works; it doesn’t make any sense to me that it does, but it just does," she says.
She first learned to do it from her friend, Phil Zink, owner of Sanitrol in North Branford, who learned it as a child from his father and has never questioned whether it works or not.
"My dad told me, ‘This is what you do,’ and I did it, and I could find water," Zink says. "I didn’t ever think about it."
He taught Muerrle to do it years ago, even though she didn’t even once believe it would work.
"I tried everything to make it not work," she says. "I’d test myself, blindfold myself, trying to make it harder — and yet every time I’d come across a pipe or a well where water was, those sticks would cross."
Dowsing, which has also been called divining or even water-witching, has existed for thousands of years, and since the Middle Ages, at least, it’s been discredited. Some scholars back then even attributed its work to the devil. Today, it’s discredited as magic thinking by the Skeptics Society, although Richard Pankowski, head of the Connecticut chapter of the American Society of Dowsers, says it’s one of those things that most people know really does work.
"Flowing water generates electricity that comes out of the Earth," he says, "and that’s what the dowser is detecting — those waves of energy. It’s a lot like the waves of heat energy you can see on a hot day coming up from the ground. Same thing."
Pankowski says there are about 100 dowsers enrolled in the ASD, although he says he knows many more people who practice dowsing for family and friends, but don’t want to join an organization about it.
"I would say that about 95 percent of people have the ability to do this just naturally," he says. "It’s a matter of listening to your subconscious mind. But not everybody wants to stick their neck out and tell somebody, ‘OK, here’s the spot. Spend $6,000, and dig your well right here.’"
Today, Zink says, dowsers are quietly at work, helping out neighbors and friends — and are even on the payroll at oil companies. "Dowsing can locate anything," he says. "Not just water. There are people who are so skilled at it, they can be told to find water that’s 30 feet down, and the sticks won’t react until the water is just at that depth."
People also use different kinds of implements, he says, to find what they’re looking for. He uses brass rods, but he has a friend who uses applewood sticks, and other people can do it, using pendulums. "The more you do it, the more you learn about it, the better you can get at it."
Zink says he keeps a set of dowsing rods in all his trucks, but that most people don’t recognize them for what they are. "Actually," he says, "the whole topic of dowsing kind of scares people. They say, ‘Get those things away from me!’ But I think they’re just scared because they can’t explain it."